Months of fighting near Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant — the largest in Europe — have created extensive damage and an “unsustainable” situation going forward, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency said Tuesday. The nuclear plant captured by Russia is now a flashpoint for concern worldwide about a possible radiological disaster caused by war.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report followed a daring and unprecedented inspection by IAEA inspectors and its director general, Rafael Grossi, crossing front lines in a war zone under shelling to reach the plant.
Most recently, the plant has lost its sole remaining external power line, now relying on one of its own reactors for essential cooling of nuclear fuel rods and spent fuel at the facility. In the report and a U.N. Security Council briefing, the IAEA called for a demilitarized safe zone around the facility.
Grid spoke with Hryhoriy Plachkov, former chairman of the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine, about the situation at Zaporizhzhia.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: What’s your assessment of the IAEA mission — and its report?
Hryhoriy Plachkov: It is positive that they have managed to visit the plant and that they have managed to station some of their people there permanently. The one thing that I was concerned about is the evaluation of the staff and working conditions there. I think the international community needs to be clearer about the conditions faced by the staff there. They are working under gunpoint. This is not normal.
It is positive that they were able to visit. And in my opinion, the final report could help change the situation, as it highlights the risks. The world cannot be constantly on the verge of a nuclear disaster, and in that I agree with the report.
G: The Zaporizhzhia facility has been under Russian control since the early days of the invasion of Ukraine. What is your understanding of the current situation at the plant?
HP: From what I understand, the plant has lost its connection to its last remaining external power line. It is running on a backup power unit, but this is a problematic way of operating such a facility.
And it comes as employees at the plant remain under enormous pressure. Remember, the plant has already been put on its backup power units twice before. What this means is that it has been reset twice already. That is not a safe thing to do.
Based on what the Russians have been doing, I don’t think their intention is to connect it to the Russian energy system. Instead, I believe they are using what is a sensitive facility as another tool in the war. It is a form of intimidation. They are using a nuclear plant as a military base. There is shelling around the facility, which could damage it. It is a very critical situation. Think back to the Fukushima nuclear disaster and tragedy in Japan, when that facility was disconnected from the external grid and a tsunami triggered damage to the reactors there. We are all aware of what happened next.
The fact is that the Russian armed forces stationed there cannot manage the risks. This is a nuclear facility, and you need specially trained personnel. Our Ukrainian personnel there are trained for eight to 10 years. They have to be licensed. You need trained civilian personnel who understand how it works and who can manage the risks.
The Russians don’t seem to understand this. They have lost their sense of reality. All I can hope is that they haven’t lost their survival instinct, given the risks that come with operating a nuclear facility such as this. Especially in the middle of a war, because using artillery, which the Russians are doing, in the area, carries massive risks. A nuclear plant is not supposed to be the center of hostilities such as this.
Another concern at the plant is that of the spread of nuclear materials. The safety of the nuclear material at the plant, when it was under our control, was guaranteed by Ukraine. With the Russians in charge, there is now the additional risk of them engaging in industrial espionage when it comes to the nuclear materials there. For example, we use fuel at the plant from the American firm Westinghouse. The technology and services were provided to Ukraine under strict conditions. One of those conditions is to make sure we don’t allow the transfer of the technology to third parties. But now Russia is in control of the plant and could take advantage of the war to take American technology.
G: Are you in contact with anyone at the plant?
HP: I don’t want to comment directly on that, but what I can say is that there is Ukrainian staff that is still working on and operating the plant. This goes back to what I said earlier: It is impossible to bring in outsiders from Russia and make them work there, to operate the controls at the facility. You need training. You can’t simply take over. Replacing the Ukrainian staff with Russian staff overnight will not work.
G: You said earlier that you think Russia’s intention here is to use the plant as a tool — a pawn, essentially — in the war. But could they connect the plant to the Russian energy system if they wanted to do so? What are the technical challenges there? And what are the risks?
HP: First of all, I’m confident that our armed forces will prevent that. There are also various technical issues in doing that. But above all I am confident that our armed forces won’t allow any such switch to happen.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.